(307 pp., Beacon Press)
Who is the Great Bliss Queen, and what questions can she answer about self and identity?
A dakini, Yeshey Tsogyel, is the principal Sky Woman in Tibetan Buddhism. Her exuberant red presence embodies deep knowledge of emptiness and compassion. Through chanting, visualization and the recitation of her ritual, participants open to the innate awareness of no-self, and the compassion this awareness generates. Yeshey Tsogyel is an icon, not a goddess figure. One joins her in order to encounter and incorporate one’s own open self. The experience of the boundless thus embraces, rather than denies, the myriad details of one’s story. A coherence arises from keen attention, revealing that “variety makes the only kind of whole that can be known.”
The reconciliation of form and emptiness is one of two fascinating sleights of hand (mind and heart) that Anne Carolyn Klein performs throughout her complex book. The other is the bringing together of Buddhism and feminism. Klein proposes that the concern with self is the central issue for both. Buddhist and feminist perspectives also share a radical skepticism about the status quo and the desire for a fruitful interplay between theory and experience. Each field has its own method to engage self and has reached insights into its nature. The methodology and findings of each field can illuminate the inquiry of the other.
Klein, an associate professor of religious studies at Rice University, is comfortable with both subjects and worth listening to. She spent the ’70s and early ’80s between Asia and graduate school in Buddhist studies examining Buddhist texts and practices, primarily of the Tibetan tradition. In l982 she entered Harvard Divinity School where she encountered women scholars exploring the very issues of personhood that had originally drawn her to Buddhism. In this period she also spent three years doing fieldwork in India, Nepal and Tibet. Her rich background is evident in the way she synthesizes materials from diverse disciplines. Her bibliography ranges from feminists to Sigmund Freud, from Buddhist scholars in all traditions to Jorge Luis Borges.
Klein sees feminists bringing a challenge to Buddhism’s dominant patriarchal character. As she sees it, this challenge is having a profound impact on the changing shape of Buddhism in the West. The feminist perspective is also contributing to Buddhist discussions of self. Feminists have long known that identity, particularly sexual identity, is a construct, since biology alone cannot account for most of the supposed differences between the sexes. Post-modernists in particular have unlocked the narrow construction of the individual, which they see as a product of culture, history, politics, race, gender and language. This social and psychological frame and the methodology feminists bring to their analysis expands the usual Buddhist meaning of dependent origination beyond the physical conditions of mind and body.
Buddhism, in turn, Klein believes, can inform feminist exploration by offering a broader idea of self: self as embedded in connections with what would appear to be not-self. The oral tradition of Tibet projects the psyche onto the external world, so the self is felt as continuous with family, clan and village, as well as with the natural world and a spiritual cosmos. In contrast, Western culture withdraws into the mind as the locus of ideas and feelings. The Tibetans live in a cosmos they co-create by their own and others’ thoughts, words and actions. The cosmos, thus, is seen not as something around us but as a creative process in which each of us participates.
Other Asian cultures also differ from the West in their view of what it is to be an individual. In Japan, for instance, infants are assumed to be overly idiosyncratic and therefore are schooled to be less individualistic. In the West, the notion holds sway that infants are undifferentiated and therefore need to be raised to be unique. Klein tells of a Japanese child attending kindergarten in the United States and being stymied by the teacher’s request to name her favorite color. The pressure in the West to have a favorite color, ice cream or friend reinforces a sense of being special that was unknown to this child.
Perhaps most important for feminist discussion, and very compelling to me, is Klein’s exploration of how mindfulness “reveals mind and body to be in constant communication, each shaping and responding to the other.” Klein quotes from Buddhaghosa:
The drum and the sound are not mixed up together, the drum is void of the sound and the sound is void of the drum, so too, when mentality occurs having as its support the materiality . . . the mentality and materiality are not mixed up together, the mentality is void of the materiality and the materiality is void of the mentality; yet the mentality occurs due to the materiality as the sound occurs due to the drum.
The model of this mind/body interaction overturns the dualism that allies men with reason and mind, and women with body and emotion. Finally, Klein points out that the reciprocal relation of the two realms rules out the hierarchical devaluing of body/emotion/female in favor of mind/reason/male. This nondual model acknowledges difference without creating opposition.
Klein is especially concerned with reconciling the seeming conflict between the particulars of one’s personal story and the impermanent flux of universals. Her inquiry speaks the language of feminist debate between “essentialists” and “post-modernists,” and as such may be unfamiliar to many meditators. As I explored Klein’s discussion, I saw how the essentialists are speaking of an abiding form while the post-modernists posit the lack of any fixed essence. My ability to follow Klein’s argument was then enhanced by my understanding of “form” and “emptiness.” Indeed, Klein’s own understanding of the Buddhist experience of identity has allowed her to see through the seeming duality of these two camps, yet she demonstrates how identity may undergo constant change through interaction with all that creates it, and within this very emptiness lies an unconditioned coherence.
Essentialists maintain the existence of a universal, natural feminine essence. In the last decade post-modernist feminists have moved away from this position in the direction of a completely conditioned and constructed self. (This direction has been influenced by other minority movements which have become aware of the dangers of essentialism.) As meditators cannot find a “self” or “I” in any emotion, thought or physical sensation, post-modernists can find no single trait to which one might apply the label “feminine.”
Klein is brilliant in her articulation of how a constructed self can emerge from what is composite and interdependent. Klein quotes Borges’ observation: “To say the tiger is to say the tigers that begot it, the deer and turtles devoured by it, the grass on which the deer fed, the earth that was mother to the grass, the heaven that gave birth to the earth.”
The dissolution of boundaries between self and other is the occasion for compassion, the third important theme in Klein’s text. She is eloquent about the power of compassion and about the danger for some people and cultures in misunderstanding what compassion is. For instance, women who tend to merge their needs with those of others need to be wary about giving up the self. Compassion does not require loss of self but arises when the self is experienced as interdependent. Injunctions to put others first and to give up the self are potentially crippling. Klein emphasizes that “emptiness is a topic only for those whose religious and cultural identity is secure.”
Klein warns that a misunderstanding of no-self may be especially dangerous in student/teacher relations. The individuality of a Tibetan includes his or her relationship to all things; thus, Tibetans come to practice with a well-defined sense of connection to their social and metaphysical universe. A guru is not a special being to a Tibetan, but rather “part of the consortium of life, including spirits and the elements, or part of a world that places family and clan still within the boundaries of the self.”
In contrast, Klein asserts, Westerners are working toward connection rather than out of it and need to incorporate individual strength into their understanding of connection. Otherwise, in emulation of Tibetan piety where personhood includes the concept of loyalty, they may get lost in devotion to a teacher or image.
In the ritual of the Great Bliss Queen the practitioner uses an archetype of wise compassion to develop her/his own story, rather than creating an archetype and merging with it. One feels coexistent with enlightened compassion. Such a self is free from others’ constructions as well as free from its own limiting prejudices. It is able to open beyond itself to a wider sense of community in the world.
Buddhists are sometimes criticized for their preoccupation with subjective reality. Such criticism arises from a misunderstanding of what is being experienced in meditation. Practice awakens the knowledge that I cannot exist separate from anything else, that I am made up of infinite connections. Klein’s book helps us open our awareness beyond what we normally take to be us, to see our own faces in the faces of those we meet. Bosnia, Rwanda, the homeless people we encounter, the children trapped in North American inner cities—we are not separate. This knowing has a force to it that automatically engenders compassionate action. We do not have to create compassion. Rather, we practice. We read. We participate in rituals. We let ourselves be found.